Sunday, August 24, 2014

Memories of Mendel

A little over a year ago, I came across what I consider one of my best finds -- a cache of pictures and original recordings featuring Shirley White, an unknown Big Band singer who performed with The Phil Levant Orchestra in nightclubs throughout the midwest in the late 1940's.  Through this blog, I was happy to be able to return them to Shirley's family where they belonged.

Last month at another estate sale, I came across yet another cache of original records by another Big Band era unknown -- The Mendel Riley Orchestra.

While digging through stacks and stacks (and stacks!) of mainstream record albums from the 1960's, I recognized an original recording disc mixed among them.

More followed and I eventually found a total of 16 records.  Most of the records simply had the name of the song written in pencil on the label, but a few had the band name, "Mendel Riley Orchestra" and some had the years 1947 and 1948 written on them.

The last name of the person whose estate sale I attended was Riley, but his name was James, not Mendel.

Doing some Googling, I found the following facts.

Mendel Riley was born in Parkersburg, Illinois on April 11, 1910 to Benjamin and Fern Riley.

He graduated from the Olney Township High School in 1928.

He attended Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington, Indiana where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

He married Dorothy Roberts around 1939.

He became music instructor at Champaign High School in 1934 and later became director of music where he remained until 1964.

At the time these records were made, he lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

He owned a music store near the University of Illinois.  One of the records has the address of the store, 103 N. Neil Street, Champaign, Illinois.  It appears to still be a music store.

The 1940 census shows he had a 1-year-old son, James (from whose estate sale I bought these records).

Google also had quite a few ads for the Mendel Riley Orchestra appearing at local venues during the war years including USO dances.  His band substituted for the better known bands whose members had been sent to war.  The article refers to the fact that "name bands" were a thing of the past, implying the students would have to settle for Mendel and his orchestra.

I wonder how Mendel felt being referred to as a no "name band".

It appears he also performed as "Mendel Riley's Commanders".

He seems to have been a regular at the Urbana USO.

From 05/22/1943

From 06/27/1945

From 12/11/1943

 From 6/19/1943

From 3/30/1945

Apparently, during the early 1930's Mendel was also an announcer on WJBL radio, later performing with Frank Westphal's WENR studio orchestera  as a trombone soloist.

He even performed at school anti-drug speeches:

“Marijuana will be subject of Talk by Dr. Devine Monday”--- Further plans have been made for the Marijuana meeting to be held at the Champaign high school auditorium under the auspices of the Champaign Woman’s club and the Champaign Parent-Teachers’ association, with Dr. Robert Devine of Lansing, Mich., as speaker. There will be no admission charge. Marijuana, which is the seed of the Indian hemp plant and easily grown, was introduced into Michigan by the Mexicans, and Dr. Devine a pastor of Lansing church, had ample opportunity to study the effects of the weed when used as a drug. Since there is no federal jurisdiction to govern the use of marijuana, the General Federation of Women’s clubs has for several years been agitating the necessity for a flaw to govern its use.  The Triads a group of about forty girls of the senor high school under Mendel Riley, will sing three numbers.
The only picture I could find of Mendel was from his high school in Olney, Illinois.

I ripped the records to mp3 and have listed some of the better examples below.  I'd like to think Mendel would be happy to know his music is being preserved in the digital age. I've made my best efforts to clean them up.  Mendel was known for his trombone playing.  Unfortunately, none of the songs feature any trombone solos, but someone sure played a mean trumpet.

Doodle Doo Doo
I Don't Know Why/I Can't Get Started With You (featuring vocals by Ruth Strand)
I couldn't find any information on Ruth Strand.  The announcer names the trumpet player, but I couldn't make it out. Maybe you can.
I'll See You in My Dreams
I'm Your Make Believe
Linger Awhile
Moon Glow
Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy
Near You
Night and Day
Sunny Side of the Street

Here's a couple songs that didn't have titles.  Maybe someone will recognize the tunes.

Mystery Song 1
Mystery Song 2

One record featured piano only.  I'm not sure if it's Mendel, but it has a fun honky tonk feel.

Piano Side 1
Piano Side 2

One of the records was recorded backwards, from center to outside.  I had to place the needle as far in as I could without the player rejecting it and then allow it to turn to the outer edge.  It took me a while to figure out why the record wouldn't play.

Among the records were a few that were actually letters to his parents.  Listening to them, Mendel believed recorded letters were the way of the future and urges his parents to buy a stereo that they could use to play the records on.  Kind of like trying to tell our parents to get on the internet.

Letter to Mom and Dad - Side 1

Mendel mentions his address on this record as 713 Arlington Ct.  The house is still there.

Letter to Mom and Dad - Side 2

On these Christmas Greetings records, you hear from his wife Dorothy and children James and Carolyn.
Christmas Letter to Mom and Dad - Side 1
Christmas Letter to Mom and Dad - Side 2

Another Christmas Letter to Mom and Dad

House Letter - Side 1

Mendel mentions the address of the house he plans on moving to as 1011 West Green Street.  It's still there as well and matches the his description, at least as best as you can see through the trees.

Tragically, Mendel passed away in 1969 in an electrical accident:
Mendel Riley, 59, of Champaign, a native of Parkersburg, was electrocuted Sunday morning, July 20, 1969 at Leverett Park, a suburb of Champaign.
Riley, who was the owner of several trailers in a trailer park at Leverett was found about noon yesterday. It was believed that he had been electrocuted between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. He had crawled under a trailer to replace some fuses. In so doing, he is believed to have come in contact with a “live” wire and his body was also touching a gas line while under the trailer.
His wife Dorothy lived another 41 years passing away just 2 months shy of her 100th birthday in 2010. Their son James passed away in 2012.

If anyone knew Mendel or his family, I'd love to hear from you in the comments and if you are related to Mendel, I would be glad to return these records to the family.

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